Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Ezra Stoller photographed postwar U.S. architecture with the rigor of a true believer. His images—published widely in numerous trade magazines as well as in House Beautiful and House & Garden—presented modernism not as an avant-garde or utopian vision, but as a movement in situ, one born fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s skull. Yet a global war and an ocean unequivocally separate early twentieth-century experiments undertaken at the Bauhaus and by Le Corbusier from the postwar embrace of modern architecture by corporate leaders and the cultural elite in the United States.

In Stoller’s crisp, black-and-white prints, boxy-shouldered skyscrapers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958) or Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s building for Union Carbide (1960), both in New York, proudly rise above the city grid—steel and glass curtain walls towering over masonry edifices. These were depicted as the heroes of a new age. Stoller, always precise about natural light and time of day, photographed Mies’s structure at dusk; every floor is illuminated, and the building seems to glow with industry. His image of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959), taken looking straight up into the cylindrical belly of the building, freezes Frank Lloyd Wright’s experiential design of spiraling ramps into an iconic composition—modernism’s dynamism temporarily tamed.

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It’s easy to picture Philip Johnson seated in his regular booth in the Grill Room at the Four Seasons; his back to the windows, his bespectacled eyes on the door, he’s confident and at the top of his game as he presides over a room of his own design.

Now imagine him jittery and hesitant in a different room on a different coast. It’s the late 1950s and, faced with a University of California, Berkeley researcher trying to uncover the secrets to his creativity, Johnson uses his ample verbal and social gifts to upend the interview. In a typed report, the researcher would later write, “He showed many classic features of the manic: self-centered, irritable, jumpy, flight of ideas, arrogance, use of humor to defend against serious consideration of anxiety-producing topics.” Read More …